Suddenly everyone wants a very particular set of skills. Old Henry is the latest in a line of movies where the hero turns out to be capable of things he initially appears not to be capable of at all. Before Bob Odenkirk did it in Nobody. Before Keanu Reeves in John Wick. Before Liam Neeson got the current phase underway in Taken. Before all of those there was Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, reluctantly strapping the guns back on and doing what a killing machine does. Since then Marvel and DC have reminded us of the type with many variations of the same thing – the mild mannered type who’d rather not fight, but if he/she is forced to… then, prepare for whacks, as the Thing used to say.
The bleed-across from superhero movies is obvious, but Old Henry owes more of a debt to Eastwood, since it’s a story of a gentle but severe widower raising his son in hardscrabble isolation in the Old West until one day he stumbles across a near-dead man and a big satchel of cash. Having taken the man in to his house, and stashed the cash, it isn’t long before the loot has attracted unwanted attention of a badass called Ketchum, who claims to be a lawman, though an opening sequence in which Ketchum has shot, stamped on and then hanged a man begging for mercy does seem to situate him on the other side of the divide. He looks like a wrong’un too.
So on one side Ketchum and his two “deputies”, as he calls them. On the other Henry, his son, Wyatt, a teenager anxious to be taken seriously as a man, and the wounded Curry, all three of them useless – one too old, the other too young, the third too sick.
Classic underdog stuff. Writer/director Potsy Ponciroli keeps an extra trick up his sleeve almost till the last minute but drops hints early on that Henry may turn out to be more than a meek farmer – that stash of weapons hidden from his son, for instance.
It would be all a touch too much of a cliché if Tim Blake Nelson weren’t the lead. His face already something straight off a 19th-century Wanted poster, and adorned with a droopy moustache, Nelson is exactly right here, suggesting Henry is lither and slightly more physically adroit than you might expect in someone labelled “old”. It’s also a very nicely cagey performance. The exterior says “farmer” but Nelson has nailed the manner of a man who knows when he smells trouble, and has a vision of how best to deal with it.
Ponciroli also gives us enough of the inside of Henry’s homstead – an oil painting, decent chairs, subtle lighting – for us to start asking questions about what sort of a man this is. Jordan Lehning’s soundtrack, meanwhile, growls away, reminding us that no matter how sophisticated the interior decor, there’s something nasty brewing somewhere.
For all the setting up of Henry, his kid, the stranger, the bad guys, the interior of Henry’s house and so on, when the shooting does eventually start (surely no spoiler), it does feel like it’s happening too soon. As if we haven’t found out quite enough about the various characters to be fully invested in what’s about to happen to them. The son – played as petulant rather than thwarted by Gavin Lewis – is a particular problem. The stranger, Curry, is another underwritten character and Ponciroli can’t seem to decide whether he’s part of this story or not. Stephen Dorff makes some headway as the lawman who isn’t, by now in his career having almost entirely erased the memory of when he used to play handsome leading-men types.
You say cliché, I say genre trope – Old Henry has classic status in its sights and Nelson does his best to help it along but its pacing is a touch off. What it needs, perhaps, is a little more room to breathe early on and a bit less time to catch its breath towards the end.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022